Son of a Son of a Sailor

As much as it is a Jimmy Buffett song, it also happens to be true for me.

My paternal grandfather went to the Coast Guard Academy before dropping out to build submarines for World War II. He was employed by Electric Boat in Groton Connecticut as an electrician, handling the wiring between the bridge and the rest of the submarine. Grandpa would describe working on sixteen hour shifts building them, taking them out into Montauk Sound, and diving ten feet at a time and checking all the wiring. Ten feet at a time, they would take the boat down and make sure everything worked and that the submarine was watertight. He did this for the duration of the war.

His time at Electric Boat also taught him to make coffee; specifically, he learned to make Navy coffee. This isn’t so much coffee as a water based caffeine delivery system, a concoction so strong and ill tempered that cappuccinos and espressos would see it coming and cross to the other side of the street. One time, when I was getting my dad a cup of the stuff (which he cut with liberal amounts of water so that he would not get the shakes), I poured in some milk. The healthy dose of milk disappeared under the surface without a hint of color change on the time; it was like the coffee had consumed the cream itself. As my grandpa had survived on this coffee for years, it was a family theory that he had outlived his life span due to the sheer volume of caffeine that resided in his system.

In the later years, he would watch the submarines making their way from the Navy base in Groton on the Thames river. From the hilltop across from the Coast Guard Academy, he’d observe the cadets maneuvering in their sailboats or taking Eagle out to sea. I can still see him now, sitting with legs crossed at the knee, puffing on his pipe and watching the business of the river go by.

My father had his own sailing adventures, minus the military involvement. As someone raised in the New London area, the river and the ocean were not far away. Whenever he got the chance, he’d go out sailing with my aunt on her sailboat. I remember vaguely as a kid that he took a sailing vacation for a week. When we went to pick him up afterwards, he had a goofy grin on his unshaven face, the kind one gets coming fresh out of an adventure.

This was not the only adventuresome streak my father had. During college and another time year later, he went out to his college buddy’s ranch to be a cowboy. Or, to make it a bit clearer using his term, a real cowboy. As in, rounding up and driving cattle, branding calves, mending fences, riding horseback, and all of the sweat and hard work that the movies rarely show. On that remote piece of plateau land in Arizona, he experienced the American Western life as few have known it in the intervening years.

Unlike sailing, my father continues to follow his love of the American West. He is a season pass holder for Cowtown Rodeo in Woodstown, NJ. (Yes, there is a rodeo in New Jersey. It’s the oldest weekly running rodeo in the country. And having attended it multiple times, it’s a quite a bit of Americana that should not be missed.) Every Saturday night during the summer, he drives down to see men ride bulls and horses, rope steers and calves, and women barrel race. It’s a professional rodeo and, having sat out there on the benches as the sun sets, it is just a bit of the cowboy culture transported to New Jersey.

As this is a Father’s Day post, I would be remiss to omit my maternal grandfather. He was a sailor of his own right, having learned to sail on the Cooper River and on Long Beach Island. His attempts to teach his children how to sail resulted in excellent family stories about emergence of personality quirks and very little actual seamanship. Nevertheless, my grandfather would go sailing with his friends in and around Barnegat Light as the sea and the family vacation needs saw fit.

In the last years of his life, he and my grandmother took a river cruise with my great aunt and uncle down the Hudson. The boat made its lazy, meandering way while the four of them enjoyed the scenery over the course of a week. I cannot remember where they started from, but I remember this trip because they were set to dock and disembark in New York City on Tuesday, September 11th. (Yes, that Tuesday. Needless to say, they did not dock there.)

While I really do like Jimmy Buffett song, I find that common thread of sailing in my immediate paternal forbearers to be apropos. There is a certain call of the sea, a romanticizing aspect that intrigues one by invoking adventure and curiosity. The harsh reality of the actual voyage carries its own burden for each person who undertakes it, resulting in a clash of ideals versus reality. With that said, I guess it would be a fair comparison to that of being a father. Though heavy with stories, real and otherwise, there is still nothing that compares to the actual voyage.

To all the dads out there, a Happy Father’s Day. I’ll give the last lines to Jimmy.

Where it all ends I can’t fathom my friends
If I knew I might toss out my anchor
So I cruise along always searchin for songs
Not a lawyer a thief or a banker

2 thoughts on “Son of a Son of a Sailor

  1. This quote came up this morning Andy, and I thought it was rather appropriate for this post:

    “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” — John Keats

    As a young poet, this is the epitaph he wanted on his tombstone, and given your family’s history on the water, I thought you would appreciate it.

  2. Cowtown! I spent the first few years of my life in Woodstown, and to this day I never get tired of seeing peoples’ faces when I tell them that New Jersey (yes, New Jersey) has the oldest continuous rodeo in the country.

    I also took my wife to Cowtown on our honeymoon, but that’s another story…

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